Few stories in history have such a clear starting point as the feud of Troy and Sparta, as told by Homer in the annals of Greek mythology. A literal classic tale of affection, duty, honor, family, and betrayal that plays out on a bloody stage, the aftermath of Paris and Helen’s legendary affair is the stuff that poetry and mythology are made of.
Perhaps it’s because the story has been told so many times before, or because its characters seem destined to a fate already predetermined by thousands of years of its telling, but the new Netflix/BBC co-production “Troy: Fall of a City” feels timeless in precisely the same way that all other incarnations of the story have. Without much reinvention, except to maybe appease some of the spectacle that guides one the biggest shows on television right now, it’s not so much an adaptation of the story for current times, but an adaptation just for TV’s sake.
As one might expect, the first episode of “Troy: Fall of a City” centers on the wayward journeys of Paris, a secret prince of Troy, tested and tempted by the gods after living his life as an unassuming farmer. On his first diplomatic mission as an official member of the Trojan leadership to the nearby city of Sparta, he falls in love with Helen, the woman he believes has been chosen for him by the love goddess Aphrodite. As fate would have it, Helen also happens to be the wife of Sparta’s King Menelaus.
Anyone acquainted with a Classics 101 course knows how the rest of most of “Troy: Fall of a City” plays out. After Helen forsakes her life in Sparta, the Greek city strikes back at their new adversaries, retaliating in various ways they deem appropriate for suddenly being short one queen. The honor of men and the relative value of women become the centerpieces in a bloody, murky conflict with a steady-rising body count.
But it’s that traditional start to the “Iliad” story that puts this adaptation in a hole it can never fully climb out of. This torrid love affair of Paris and Helen, meant to be one of history and literature’s great cosmic connections feels like the most obligatory part of this saga. “Troy: Fall of a City” introduces Paris as a whiny playboy, but wants him to be both noble romantic hero and the poster child for failing upward within Troy’s inner circle. And even when Helen asserts herself in tiny ways, as the rope in a violent nation-state tug-of-war, she rarely leaves the confines of the palace walls.
With the luxury of eight episodes to tell the aftermath of that inciting incident, what’s missing from that initial spark gets recouped a bit when “Troy: Fall of a City” returns to it so many times. But that continuous, unresolved question of duty and obligation in the face of the dangers of war sets a cycle of repetition that swallows the rest of the show’s characters, too. In romance and in battle, this is a complex saga broken down into interactions that, even halfway through the series has begun to redo itself.
If “Troy: Fall of a City” is worth watching, it’s for the other figures outside of those two main lovers. Chief among them is David Gyasi, effortless as legendary warrior Achilles. Like Odysseus (Joseph Mawle, who also elevates what could easily be a conventional figure in this story), Achilles is withheld until the rumblings of a fight begin. Gyasi makes him worth the wait. His performance is the clearest example of how a more primal ancient form of warfare actually becomes more powerful when its main players are more reserved in how they express their anger and the fuel for the fight. All Gyasi needs to instill fear in the hearts of his opponents are a simple chuckle and a controlled, menacing stare. Yes, he is preceded by reputation, but it’s clear right away that those unfamiliar with his legend will still recognize the pivotal role he plays in how the story unfolds.
Because the individuals in the story, whether in palace discussions or strategies of war, are so larger than life, there’s a real challenge to finding bits of character development within the saga that aren’t just means to get from one plot point to another. The Troy-Sparta story is such a dense web that it doesn’t leave much room for quiet conversation that doesn’t explicitly move the story forward in one way or another. Indeed, some of the vicious and brutal choices made by some central figures, changing them from decent, compromised men to full-blown monsters, ring false when they’re so tied to the burden of having to shepherd the story along as it’s been told so many times before.
From the beginning, “Troy: Fall of a City” hints at having a more distinct approach when incorporating the gods. Represented here as something closer to mortals in visions, they set in motion the events that come to dominate these two warring societies. Aphrodite (Lex King) is a ghost of a woman who pops up in Paris’ subconscious. Athena (Shamilla Miller) is a symbol, walking among men preparing for battle. Zeus (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) is the seated ruler of all, as brothers, mothers, and children are all brutally killed in the name of preserving prophecies.
But the humans take the lion’s share of attention, from hamstrung rulers like Priam (David Threlfall) to vengeful warriors like Agamemnon (Johnny Harris). And for as distinct as this saga needs them to be, Troy and Sparta don’t seem so dissimilar. Made up of men and women on both sides largely drawn from the traditional British character actor circles, “Troy: Fall of a City” is mostly in step with the epics of old. Save for some standard-looking hallucinations (poor Cassandra isn’t given much to do besides be a conduit for ominous news), there’s not much to differentiate either side of this conflict aside from the people wielding shields.
In the wake of a series like “Britannia” — which also took on lore of its own by infusing it with a colorful, mystical sense of danger — “Troy: Fall of a City” feels much tamer by comparison, even after chopped appendages, pilum-skewered skulls, and a horrific cycle of violence against women spins on without stopping. Animal sacrifice, hand-to-hand combat, and an endless string of bedroom talks wracked with anxiety about the future all pop up more than once, losing their potency each time they’re used to heighten tension.
The result is a series more competent than compelling. The tiny diversions from the norm seem thrilling by comparison, but aside from Achilles and Odysseus, most of the players in the story are fulfilling orders. Even for a show hurtling to a well-known endpoint, it’s familiar in its telling. That may be a comfort to some, but for those looking for a fresh mythical spin, have your horses ride elsewhere.
“Troy: Fall of a City” is available to stream on Netflix.